Written on Tuesday, March 17th, 2009 with 52 Comments
I’m reading the excellent book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” right now. For the past couple of years my wife and I have worked hard to buy more and more sustainable products in our lives. When I came to a passage describing how companies like Petaluma Farms abuse the use of the term “free range” as a term to advertise their chickens, I was stunned.
See, there’s no true definition to “free range”. It’s a nebulous term. But since I bought from Whole Foods, and they proudly present the Rosie as their prime product, I (very mistakenly) assumed it was done… right. I picture free range living as an environment free of wire cages, where the majority of the bird’s life is spent roaming, eating grass, grains, and other feed, etc.
According to Petaluma Farms’ website:
USDA standards allow any poultry with access to the outside – even a small, outdoor, concrete pad – to be labeled free range. Petaluma Poultry believes that free range chickens are raised in spacious poultry houses. Petaluma’s birds get approximately one square foot per bird, about 25% more space per bird than those raised in conventional poultry operations.
Now the average bird in a “conventional poultry operation” lives in a cage smaller than the size of a piece of 8.5×11 paper. Can’t expand it’s wings fully. Often can’t turn around. So in context, the additional 25% *might* actually let them turn around. Oh happy day.
Beginning at approximately four weeks of age, when the birds are fully feathered and able to withstand both exposure to the sun and cooler outside temperatures, the birds are allowed to roam outside of the house beginning about mid-morning, and are then ushered back inside the house around 5 pm.
This is better “spin” than when the Republican party introduced the “Clean Air Act”, a bill specifically designed to increase pollution levels. Incidentally, farmed chickens are typically slaughtered in their 6th or 7th week, so Petaluma is basically giving them about 14 or so half-days of sunshine and walking around as a perk. Notice that there’s no description nor pictures of the amount of space or grassy surface for walking around. It could be as small as a parking spot, and we have no idea if it’s dirt, concrete, grass, or swampland (the latter is unlikely). No pictures are on the site, and the lack of description is extremely telling.
I am contacting both Petaluma Farms and Whole Foods to inform them that I will no longer purchase this “product” (a term they both use to describe food I’m supposed to eat), and I hope some of you do the same.
My letter to Petaluma Farms:
Don’t you consider your marketing your factory farmed chickens as “free range” as not only manipulative, but damaging to the entire industry?
When I discovered your chickens spend most of their lives in a miserable cage, with a couple of weeks in the sun before slaughter, I was truly ashamed at all the money I’ve spent proudly buying your products.
Not another dime.
Incidentally, can you please add to your website some photos of your henhouse, including what it looks like fully occupied, and the outside “Free Range” area for the chickens to roam freely?
My letter to Whole Foods:
It has come to my attention that the “Rosie” brand chicken carried (at least) in Bay Area Whole Foods stores are far from the “free range” label implied in your stores. Perhaps you are not aware of this, but the vendor, Petaluma Farms, actually follows typical factory farming approaches to raising chickens, with a bare minimum effort to achieve some type of “Free Range” designation.
This is bait-and-switch at best, and outright deception at worst. On your “values” page, you claim “We have high standards and our goal is to sell the highest quality products we possibly can.” I hope this is the case, and I hope you are willing to investigate the practices of Petaluma Farms.
You clearly have the buying power to mandate change, or to change vendors. Also, my assumption is your customer base would rather shell out a few extra pennies knowing the food they are buying really is not only “natural” but raised in a more humane fashion. Not to mention the fact that properly raised chicken actually taste better!
I’ll follow-up if anything comes of it – I have high hopes, but extremely low expectations.